“Race isn’t overly cloying or destructively messy, but that doesn’t make it particularly memorable or outstanding.”
by Ken Bakely
It’s hard to know where to begin analyzing Stephen Hopkins’ Race, because there isn’t much to say. There’s nothing debilitatingly wrong with the picture – it’s robustly shot and features a great cast. The film is simply adequate, taking a very inspirational story and making a mildly inspirational movie. I could see it having a future in world history classes, except the 134 minute runtime often gives way to a wandering pace, and antsy students would be squirming in their seats. While the movie’s main focus is on Jesse Owens’ (Stephan James) legendary performance at the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics, a number of subplots fill out the screenplay, from a recreation of the debate on whether or not the United States should have sent athletes to Nazi Germany at all, to the tale of German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten), and her assignment to film the games to create what was intended to be another puff piece for Hitler’s regime. These plot threads are interesting in their own right, but often play like unnecessary padding, minimized and overwrought, when forced to share time with a much bigger main event.
Race begins in 1933, as Owens begins to attend school at Ohio State University. Quickly catching the eye of fledgling track coach Lawrence “Larry” Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), Owens decides to make a daring commitment, and hone his already-impressive running skills to even greater levels, and compete in the upcoming Olympic games. His choice of Ohio State is, as Snyder points out, somewhat befuddling, as a gifted athlete like Owens could attend far more racially progressive schools. But sometimes, these things are meant to happen, as Owens continues to shatter records and gains a nationwide following. Soon, his Olympic participation is an international subject of interest, as he stands a chance at winning multiple medals and humiliating the Third Reich’s theory of Aryan superiority on the world’s stage.
It seems rather clear that Race’s problems are mostly confined to Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse’s screenplay – in particular, its array of busy subplots which ultimately fail to congeal into a meaningful accompaniment of the story, contributing to a bloated running time and a lack of focus in developing the central theme into anything above standard made-for-TV fare. The acting, on the other hand, is strong across the board. Stephan James takes his first leading role in a major production, and his interpretation of Jesse Owens is compelling from start to finish. Jason Sudeikis tries out his dramatic chops as Larry Snyder, and he does fairly well. A solid supporting cast is rounded out with Van Houten, Jeremy Irons (as Olympic official Avery Brundage), Shanice Banton (as Owens’ wife Ruth), and the underappreciated David Kross, who makes an appearance as Carl Long, a German athlete who took the dangerous step of publicly befriending the African-American athlete whom the Nazis were becoming quickly furious at. Race isn’t overly cloying or destructively messy, but that doesn’t make it particularly memorable or outstanding. Its obvious title should give you a clue into the lukewarm thematic dissection at hand here. Hopkins is a fine director of the material, and the actors are talented, but the screenplay fails them in extraordinarily disappointing and fundamental ways.